Bob Dylan and his style of folk singing became influential in the music world from early on in his career, with the release of songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Oxford Town,” and “The Times They Are a-Chaingin’.” He had a unique voice, and the power of his lyrics helped to revive American interests in folk music. It didn’t hurt that he was working in the early 1960s during the civil rights movement, and many of his songs were nearly political in their themes of peace and change. These themes did not just fit the civil rights movement, but were also highly suitable to many protests against the Vietnam War.
Much of Dylan’s music was also influenced by poverty. Originally from Minnesota, Dylan had struck out on his own and attempted to make it as a musician in New York. He released songs that dealt with struggle, many of them also dealing with personal growth. Around 1965, he began to release songs such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Desolation Row,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “On the Road Again” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Many of these songs were also notably influenced by rock and roll or blues music, as was “Maggie’s Farm,” which helped to mark his move away from standard folk music and protest songs. From that point forward, he began to enter the mainstream.
Around this time, Bob Dylan was hanging out more with poets such as Allen Ginsberg than he was with other musicians. The influence of poetry was notable in many of his lyrics, especially songs such as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a song that has always been difficult for fans to interpret. As he moved into the late 1960s and the 1970s, he continued to release notable songs such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “If You See Her, Say Hello” and “Forever Young.” Writing primarily on a typewriter, occasionally in a basement with members of the Hawks (such as on Blonde on Blonde or The Basement Tapes), he had numerous ideas to put on paper at any given time.
Not all of his songs were thematically complex, but that was sometimes to his benefit. Even songs that were left open to interpretation generally had a melody that was simple enough for fans to sing along, which is what allowed some of his earlier songs to become civil rights and anti-war anthems. His instrumentation was usually relatively simple as well. Dylan accompanied himself on the guitar, occasionally using a harmonica or bringing in other musicians to help with the backing music. He mixed this simplicity with a vivid imagination, as evidenced by many of his lyrics, yet he was also known for being brutally honest. The album Blood on the Tracks, which includes the song “If You See Her, Say Hello,” is generally believed to have stemmed from the tensions that Dylan felt around the time of his separation from his first wife, Sara.
Bob Dylan has long been hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. His music has been highly influential since the 1960s, and many lyricists still hold him up on a pedestal as an example of what truly great songwriting should look like. He was able to take imagery and personal emotions and combine them in a way that made true poetry, something which many good folk singers—and songwriters in general—have aspired to do ever since.
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